Part Four: Dancing on the Pinnacle: 1978-1979
Between 1978 and 1979, Casablanca could do no wrong.Trailing just behind CBS Records, Casablanca was the most successful record company in the U.S. Its artists gathered Oscar wins, number one albums, Grammy Awards, and even more platinum and gold discs.
In only four short years, Casablanca had become a blockbuster record company due in no small part to KISS, arguably the most sensational live act in rock music at the time. Ray D'Ariano, who was based in Casablanca's New York office, notes, "The disco thing was so huge and at the same time, we had this phenomenon going on with KISS. Totally nothing to do with disco, totally nothing to do with anything". The team behind KISS was instrumental in the innovative marketing of the group. Bill Aucoin, who managed KISS through his own Rock Steady management company, and Joyce Bogart-Trabulus, who co-managed the group with Aucoin, ensured that KISS was constantly breaking new ground. Aucoin even copyrighted the band's make-up in the Library of Congress. 1978 brought a rock music "first" to fruition when each member of KISS released a solo album simultaneously.
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Bill Aucoin (Manger, KISS): Everything we did was new and exciting, every piece of merchandise, every brand new video. A lot of the pyrotechnics we developed everyone uses now. We spent an awful lot of time marketing the group with merchandise. Other people were saying, "Oh it looks like a kiddie group". We kind of had to fight that off as well. Don't forget we got away with an awful lot because our marketing ideas, many times, had never been done before. People were always against us, "They shouldn't have made it, They're not that good", so forth and so on. I think most people thought it was a flash in the pan that wouldn't last.
Brett Hudson (The Hudson Brothers): Neil Bogart loved how smart Gene was and he loved how passionate Paul Stanley was.
Phyllis Chotin (Vice President, Creative Services): I think the best act was always KISS because those guys, particularly Gene Simmons, were brilliant! He's such a smart guy. They got it. They knew the importance of marketing. If I had to pick who was the most talented, as far as understanding the business, it would be them.
Bob Esty: Gene Simmons would sit outside the control room at Cher's recording session out of make up. He was looking at all the magazines and all the publications about merchandising to find out if they're paying him. He was a major, mean businessman. A great guy but he didn't let anybody get away with anything. He's a genius.
Jim Watson (National Promotions Coordinator): Gene was a real gentleman and would give you the shirt off of his back.
Larry Blackmon (Cameo): It's phenomenal to see Gene Simmons on TV with that crazy-ass show. We knew them when they were doing the New York Dolls look, before they went into the cartoon characters. They were dressing like the New York Dolls with the lipstick and the earrings. They were lookin' like bitches (laughs), ugly bitches at that. Then we wind up on the same record label – that was fuckin' phenomenal.
Randee Goldman (Executive Assistant): Katie Segal used to date Gene Simmons. I will never forget them coming over to my house. I lived on the beach, and I had a piano and we were jamming. She was singing and he was singing. The ice cream truck came and Gene didn't have his make-up on, obviously. He had on his shoes. I lived on the marina peninsula, which is a nice area. I was on the corner of the speedway. The limousine was outside and so everybody wanted to know what was going on. The ice cream truck comes up and he takes a scarf or something and he's waving it out the window saying, "Hold on, hold on. Just wait a minute". He takes Katie’s purse and puts it over his arm and starts to walk down the stairs. He says, "Who wants some popsicles?" He was buying popsicles for everybody.
Ray D'Ariano (Director of East Coast Artist Relations): I had come from MCA and I had been out on the road with the Who and Lynyrd Skynyrd and Golden Earring. Elton John was a rocker back then. He was a modern Jerry Lee Lewis. When I came over to Casablanca, to be honest with you, personally I wasn't that impressed with KISS. I didn't think they were musically as talented as some of the other groups that I had been working with. I'm working there about a month and KISS' management said KISS are rehearsing for their next tour and why don't you come see the rehearsal and you'll get to say hello and meet them. It turns out they're two hours from Manhattan at Stewart Air Force Base in Newburgh, NY. I drive up there and they were in an airplane hanger. Going in, I expected KISS to do two or three songs and to meet the guys and then split. It didn't go that way. When I go inside the hanger, the same huge stage that they would perform on every night of the tour – like the same one that they'd use at Madison Square Garden – is all set up in this airplane hanger with this giant KISS logo. The crew is there and the rehearsal turns out to be the entire show from beginning to end! The drums levitate, Gene spits fire… the entire show. They weren't wearing the make up in the rehearsal but they were wearing the huge platform boots. Gene, I think, had these gigantic dragon boots. I said to a roadie or somebody, "What's with the boots?" They said, "They got to get used to walking around in them". I walked out of that place, I still wasn't going to rush home and throw on a KISS album for my own enjoyment, but I had a totally new respect for KISS because I saw how professional and dedicated they were. When I went to see the show live, and I saw all the kids going crazy, they gave them -- whatever the cost of the ticket -- they gave them 50 times more in the value of a show. They worked hard for their fans.
Aucoin: The greatest thing about KISS is they really worked their butts off. They worked and worked. They never argued about things. They obviously had good ideas about rock and roll and what they felt rock and roll was about and what they wanted to do. I think the best thing that I can tell you about the group is that they never went against anything I brought up or any of my staff brought up. They would come up with good ideas that we'd look into and see whether or not we could pull them off. It was a great family. It was a great business to be in at that moment in time, when the industry was exploding. You could almost do anything you wanted as long as you were willing to fight for it and come up with the idea to make it work.
Rob Gold (Director of Marketing): With Casablanca distributor, PolyGram's, help to announce a new KISS album, we hired an army tank decorated for the KISS Army, the name of their fan club and drove it up Sunset Boulevard to Wherehouse Records causing traffic jams and unruly crowds on a Friday night. We had hired police escorts and had media coverage. Surprisingly, Neil became angry when he learned of this while in NY. Neil was the ultimate showman but I was told he was pissed because we did not tip him off that we were doing it.
Worthy Patterson (Vice President Sales and Promotion): We decided with KISS, we were going to do a "KISS-a-Thon". They picked four or five cities. We got hotel space. People had to register. It started at noontime on Friday and they had to be lip-locked for 50 minutes out of the 60. They got ten minutes off every hour. This went on for days. This is the kind of promotion that went on.
David Edward Byrd Artist: I did a bunch of stuff when they did those four solo albums. I had three days to do this interlocking mural and…oh, it was ridiculous! You never got enough time with him to do anything.
Aucoin: Initially, the solo albums were meant to kind of give them a break. They didn't have to be together. They could go in and do the music they wanted to do. Initially, Neil wanted to put out one at a time, and I said, "Oh Neil that's not going to work. If you put one out at a time then we're going to have three unhappy members of KISS". He said, "Okay we'll put out all four". As we started to get them ready, the sales department was finding that everyone wanted to have large amounts of records. They figured, "Hey if we're selling a million units of KISS, we'll sell four million (of the solo albums)". When it was announced that we were doing that, distributors called Casablanca and ordered a million units. Well, that was just unheard of. One distributor ordering a million units of four albums? That was unbelievable, so Neil then decided to print more up.
D'Ariano: Think about this. There were a couple of years there where KISS, in popularity, was as big as The Beatles. Imagine if John, George, Paul, and Ringo all put out a solo album on the same day.
Gold: After an hour long conference call including virtually all our field and national sales and promo staff hyping the sale of one million units each of the four solo KISS members records, Bogart came into my office and asked me, "Rob can we really do this?"
Aucoin: We got carried away with it. The old word on the street was when they finally were out there was they were sent out gold and came back platinum. You just looked at every store and nothing was ever being sold. You'd walk in and there were piles of KISS albums. Eventually, they all did go platinum. It took awhile and we certainly paid the price in between with people saying, "They're not selling. There's tons of them left". We had to ride that out as well.
D'Ariano: As hard working as KISS were and are -- they're one of the hardest working acts in show business -- I don't think KISS could have made it without Neil Bogart behind them and putting the money up and promotion and sticking with them through a couple of albums where nothing happened. If the disco thing had happened first, and then KISS came along, I don't know…they might not have even been signed. If they were, and they had the same history with the first couple of albums that didn't really happen, I don't know if they would have gotten that attention. Something was all lined up for them. They just exploded.